Still talking about change in a time of broken politics

U.S. President Barack Obama unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence during an event at the White House in Washington January 16, 2013. Vice President Joe Biden (L) delivered his recommendations to Obama after holding a series of meetings with representatives from the weapons and entertainment industries as requested by the president after the December 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Although President Obama sought to be a post-partisan president, his tenure is increasingly being marked by bruising partisan battles. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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WASHINGTON — The mood was ebullient that day. A new face, a new breed of politician, had put his hand on the Bible that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Then the 47-year-old Barack Obama, born of a struggling white mother and a black father he barely knew, walked with his family to the White House, carrying with him a nation’s hopes, fears, and dreams.

But by the day’s end, harsh realities would become clear, previewing the challenges and messy politics to come: The stock market plunged 4 percent.

Four years after that day of history, the mood in advance of President Obama’s second inaugural is rooted more in reality and a sense of limits. The talk in the nation’s capital is no longer about grand ideas, or sweeping generational change. It’s about whether the government will be able to pay its bills next month. And although Obama sought to be a postpartisan president, his tenure is increasingly being marked by bruising partisan battles.

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At the White House, however, the belief is that this is not just a second
inaugural but a second act, with a changed man in the lead who has been shaped by his first term, emboldened by the lessons learned, who is seeking new ways to gain ground with or without the support of the opposition party.

“One thing we learned in the first term, especially the first two years, was it became a very inside Washington game to pass these things,” Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 campaign and was previously Obama’s deputy chief of staff, said in an interview. “But we need to remember how we won this and that is by bringing the country together.”

Obama’s second-term power is different. It is no longer driven by the blunt political instrument of his first two years in office, when his party controlled both chambers of Congress and could pass legislation without a single Republican vote.

Now, Obama must rely on a more subtle art of politics and persuasion, spoken with the confidence of a man reelected by millions of Americans. He feels emboldened, aides say, to take on some of the nation’s hardest targets — gun control, announced last week; immigration reform; the deficit; climate change. And, to make his case, he has ahead of him the bully pulpit of his inaugural address on Monday and, three weeks later, the State of the Union.

Those two speeches — being crafted by Jon Favreau, 31, from North Reading, Mass., who has channeled Obama’s words for nearly eight years — will provide the blueprint for how Obama hopes to use his political capital before it diminishes over the next four years.

Yet mostly gone is the idea that he can heal the nation’s deep political divisions simply by preaching from a lectern. Instead, according to his advisers, Obama plans to spend more time going around Congress and communicating directly with the public, deploying the organizational campaign techniques that helped him win reelection, and utilizing more of the executive powers of the presidency.

“He goes into his second inauguration . . . as a hardened politician,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. “The spirit of bipartisanship is not nearly as strong as it once was in the White House. He comes in more as a fighter, willing to take on an opposition.”

Working around Congress

Obama’s first term had begun in crisis but, notwithstanding harsh criticism from Republicans, it resulted in the major accomplishments of the stimulus bill, health care legislation, the auto bailout, Wall Street regulation, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. It also included a devastating midterm election that left the GOP in control of the House.

Even with Obama’s resounding reelection, he has only control of the Senate, and lacks a filibuster-proof majority in that chamber. While his victory earlier this month on the slimmed-down package that averted the “fiscal cliff” raised hopes in the White House that he can win by dividing the Republican Party, that is a narrow road for future success, one lined with inevitable partisan acrimony.

So, while Obama will continue to try to find a pathway in Congress to tackle issues such as tax reform and immigration, he plans to lay the foundation for other paths to policy change as he heads into his second term. Chief among these alternative pathways, according to his advisers, is the plan to take full advantage of the legal powers of his office, relying more on executive orders to impose his agenda rather than working with a recalcitrant Congress. This reflects the evolution in his thinking since his 2011 failure to conclude a “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner on the budget.

Obama had hoped to play the role of negotiator and mediator, and the failure was a harsh lesson, according to Douglas Brinkley, one of several historians who have met regularly with Obama in sessions that sometimes focus on lessons from prior presidents.

“He navigated the racial divide in America. He certainly [feels he] should be able to work with Congress,” Brinkley said. “The problem the president has is you have to go back a long ways — to almost Confederates not wanting to be seen with Abraham Lincoln — to have a group of congressmen who don’t want to be seen in the same frame with him, let alone do deals with him,” Brinkley added. “I think people overrate what can be done on things like gun control and immigration. It’s just more gridlock.”

So Brinkley has spoken with Obama about the path taken by President Theodore Roosevelt, who treated Congress like an irritant and found ways to work around it.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has also been among the group of historians who have met with Obama, agreed, saying, “When you’re stymied by the Legislature, presidents have reached for executive action and been roundly yelled at by the other side. But you understand what powers there are in the presidency and how to use them more fully after you’ve absorbed those first four years. And that seems to be showing right now.”

“That’s one thing that [Obama] has talked about that he learned,” she said. “It’s showing now — more public press conferences, and the kind of language he’s using to get public support even though it’s going to create furor on the other side.” That strategy has been evident recently. Obama last year signed an executive order that made it easier for children of illegal immigrants to become citizens, a move that helped him win Hispanic support crucial for reelection.

Last week, knowing that he might get nowhere negotiating with Congress about gun control, Obama took 23 executive actions to strengthen gun laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He also urged Americans around the country to mobilize and call for action.

Obama also showed that he is willing to use harsh campaign-style rhetoric, saying at a recent press conference that he won’t negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. Casting the opposition as villains and himself as a fighter for the common man, the president used some surprisingly stark language when he said he wouldn’t allow Republicans to hold “a gun at the head of the American people.”

Obama’s effort to go around Congress comes from his frustration in trying to deal with Republican leaders, including Boehner, whose intraparty fights with Tea Party backers have made him a difficult negotiating partner.

“I like Speaker Boehner personally, and when we went out and played golf we had a great time,” Obama said at a press conference last week, when asked about his reputation for being too insular. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”

Shortly after the debt ceiling deal collapsed in 2011, Obama’s campaign outlined a new theme called “We can’t wait” that outlined the ways in which he would go around Congress. Campaign focus groups found that people just wanted Obama to get things done, regardless of whether it was done by working with Congress or done through executive actions.

The new initiative had all the trappings of a presidential campaign. A new website was built, signs were made up, and a speech was given in Osawatomie, Kan. It was no coincidence that it was in the same small town where nearly a century earlier Theodore Roosevelt called for a strong government to protect ordinary citizens.

A crucial year lies ahead

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Obama told people close to him that winning in 2012 was almost more satisfying than winning in 2008. A portion of voters in 2008, he said, were rejecting the previous four years. Obama viewed his 2012 victory as a reaffirmation in his vision for the country. It meant his main achievements, including health care and Wall Street regulation, would be preserved and implemented, instead of dismantled, as his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, had promised.

Second terms are notoriously fickle. They can provide a framework for success, building upon the public’s vote of confidence, or turn into an exercise in lame-duck ineffectiveness. That makes the coming year all the more crucial for Obama.

“He has maximum political capital this year,” said Neera Tanden, president at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has close ties with the Obama administration. “To the extent he can, he should try to forge his legislative battles this year.”

Foreign policy, as it has for many presidents, may provide fertile ground for executive initiative. Indeed, as Obama told President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, he would have “more flexibility” in international relations if reelected. Obama’s emphasis is expected to be focused on drawing down US troops from Afghanistan, where 66,000 are stationed, managing a declining Pentagon budget, and confronting the turmoil in the Middle East.

But second terms have also been marked by missteps and scandals. President George W. Bush had the leak scandal that ensnared Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney; President Clinton had the affair with Monica Lewinsky; President Reagan had Iran Contra; and President Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate.

“I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” he said in a White House press conference shortly after he won reelection.

Obama has said one of his goals is to be a more effective communicator than during his first term, a somewhat surprising resolution for a man who wrote a bestselling book noted for its eloquent prose and a politician known for his sometimes inspirational speeches.

“When I ran, everybody said, ‘Well, he can give a good speech, but can he actually manage the job?’ ” Obama said in a CBS News interview in July. “And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.”

Using campaign network

A familiar figure appeared recently at the White House. Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s successful reelection campaign, was standing just outside the Oval Office. It was a reminder that Obama’s campaign machinery is one of his most successful legacies, and his aides are determined that it not lay fallow for the next four years. Instead, they want to make it the instrument of a successful second term.

Messina is planning to oversee the transformation of Obama’s campaign network, Organizing for America, into a nonprofit operation called Organizing for Action that will attempt to harness the campaign energy and put pressure on Congress in a way Obama aides concede they failed to do in the first term. The group has been hosting a conference for activists this weekend, in the buildup to the inauguration.

Current and former White House advisers say the first months of the term hold greater possibilities than many may realize. Four years ago, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at 7,949, losing 4 percent of its value and marking the worst Inauguration Day loss in the 113-year history of the index. Since then, the Dow has slowly but steadily risen, almost doubling its value from four years ago. On Friday, the Dow closed at 13,649. Now the emphasis is on bolstering the economy, not saving it from the brink.

Obama’s campaign will be redeployed to push the agenda of immigration, gun control, tax and entitlement reform, and global warming.

From a political standpoint, the Democratic coalition is continuing to be built in a way that could have impacts for elections to come.

Black, Hispanic, and youth voters went to the polls, in some cases in stronger numbers than four years ago. Now Obama’s second term will determine whether the voters who helped put him into office will also help him govern.

“We reoriented the way we approached things — not just engaging Washington, but taking it outside,” Carney said. “If you just spend your time sitting at the table waiting for congressional action, experience taught us it wasn’t always going to happen.”